[Marxism] Religious ultra-nationalism in the IDF

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 22 08:53:13 MDT 2009

NY Times, March 22, 2009
A Religious War in Israel’s Army

JERUSALEM — The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by 
Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in 
the recent Gaza fighting highlights a debate here about the rules of 
war. But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular 
liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a 
premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular 
kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, 
portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in 
Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their 
message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land 
by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight 
to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy 
land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had 
in this operation was of a religious war.”

Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who 
solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by 
the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing 
anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.

“If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our 
hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren’t representative of the 
whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of 
the population, what can we expect?” he said. “To whom do we complain?”

For the first four decades of Israel’s existence, the army — like many 
of the country’s institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw 
themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two, 
religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the 
West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military 
responsibility. (In Israeli society, they are a growing force, distinct 
from, and more modern than, the black-garbed ultra-Orthodox, who are 
excused from military service.)

In many cases, the religious nationalists have ascended to command 
positions from precisely the kind of premilitary college course that Mr. 
Zamir runs — but theirs are run by the religious movements rather than 
his secular one, meaning that the competition between him and them is 
both ideological and careerist.

“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated 
by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies,” noted 
Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military 
code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically 
liberal. “The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli 
society through the army.”

For Mr. Halbertal, like for the vast majority of Israelis, the army is 
an especially sensitive institution because it has always functioned as 
a social cauldron, throwing together people from all walks of life and 
scores of ethnic and national backgrounds, and helping form them into a 
cohesive society with social networks that carry on throughout their lives.

Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned 
about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai 
Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active 
during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the 

He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a 
slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up 
being cruel to the merciful.”

A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found 
to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The 
Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.

At the time, in January, Avshalom Vilan, then a leftist member of 
Parliament, accused the rabbi of having “turned the Israeli military’s 
activity from fighting out of necessity into a holy war.”

Immediately after Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 
2005 and then from several West Bank settlements, there was a call to 
disband certain religious programs in the army because some soldiers in 
them said they would refuse to obey future orders to disband 
settlements. After the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the increase in rocket 
attacks on Israel, that discussion died down.

But Yaron Ezrahi, a leftist political scientist at Hebrew University who 
has been lecturing to military commanders, said that the call to close 
those programs should now be revived because what was evident in Gaza 
was that the humanistic tradition from which a code of ethics is derived 
was not being sufficiently observed there.

The dispute over control of the army is not only ideological. It is also 
personal, as all politics is in this small, intimate country. Those who 
disagree with the chief rabbi have vilified him. Those who are unhappy 
with what Mr. Zamir did by leaking the transcript of the Gaza soldiers’ 
testimonies last week have spread word that he is a leftist ideologue 
out to harm Israel.

In 1990, Mr. Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves, 
was sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony involving 
religious Jews visiting the West Bank city of Nablus. For some, that 
refusal is a badge of honor; for others it is an act of insubordination 
and treason. A quiet campaign began on Thursday regarding Mr. Zamir’s 
leftist sympathies, to discredit the transcript he publicized.

At the same time, Rabbi Rontzki’s numerous sayings and writings have 
been making the rounds among leftist intellectuals. He has written, for 
example, that what others call “humanistic values” are simply subjective 
feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah.

He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a 
non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick 
and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.

Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi 
Rontzki, said the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between 
religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves. The 
debate is over three issues — the sanctity of land versus life; the 
relationship between messianism and Zionism; and the place of non-Jews 
in a sovereign Jewish state.

The religious left argues that the right has made a fetish of the land 
of Israel instead of letting life take precedence, he said. The 
religious left also rejects the messianic nature of the right’s Zionist 
discourse, and it argues that Jewish tradition values all life, not 
primarily Jewish life.

“The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, 
as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,” 
he said. “They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also 
Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”

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